Even if the Pittsburgh Pirates had made the playoffs this season, it wouldn’t have been thanks to a potent offense. It would have been in spite of not having one.
Out of 16 teams in the National League, the Pirates’ ranking in batting average, on-base percentage, and runs scored was 14th, 14th, and 10th respectively. They were also next-to-last in the league in doubles and dead last in walks.
What they did do was hit home runs, and there’s no reason to think they won’t be able to do it again next year.
The Pirates were fourth in the National League with 170 home runs despite playing their home games in a pitcher-friendly park. They were led in the category by Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, who hit 31 and 30, respectively, making them one of just two teams with a pair of 30-homer hitters.
The problem is that rarely was was anyone on base ahead of them when those home runs were hit.
Andrew McCutchen had what will likely go down as the best year of his career, and one of the best seasons in the National League this year. For the first time in recent Pittsburgh memory, the Pirates had a singular hitter good enough to be the centerpiece of a playoff offense. With Alvarez and Neil Walker in the lineup as well, they also have a good jump on the secondary pieces necessary to compete.
So what’s missing? It all starts at the top.
Pirate leadoff hitters, a group that included Alex Presley, Jose Tabata, and for a brief time, Drew Sutton, combined to hit just .246 on the season, and even worse, had an on-base percentage of .291. It didn’t get much better in the two-spot, where largely the same group of hitters combined to hit .248 with a .304 on-base percentage.
Putting the likes of Presley and Tabata in front of a hitter like McCutchen is like putting stock tires on your Bentley.
When looking at next year’s roster, the middle of the pirates lineup doesn’t stack up too poorly. A three-through-six in the middle of the order of McCutchen, Garrett Jones, Walker and Alvarez is good enough to compete, especially against right-handed pitching. But without any on-base ability ahead of them, their ceiling is likely no higher than what it was this season.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, the internal options are limited. Walker spent a lot of time batting fifth this season, with his switch-hitting ability making him a good fit to break up the lefties Jones and Alvarez in the middle of the Pirates lineup, but he spent an equal amount of time batting second. The Pirates have a need for him in both spots, but given his .342 on-base percentage (second on the team behind only McCutchen), he is needed at the top of the lineup.
This is a move that could become more perminent if the Pirates can find another right-handed bat to bat fifth.
Walker in the two-hole, however, still leaves a hole at the top, and the Pirates indicated this summer that they would like rookie Starling Marte to grab a hold of that spot. Marte showed flashes of brilliance this season and has a strong Triple-A track record, but at no point in his professional career has he demonstrated a strong on-base ability, never having had a walk rate higher than 6.5%. In order to be a legitimate top of the order player, he’ll need to bat at least .320.
Which means they’ll have to look outside the organization. The Pirates have few openings in their lineup, with Marte figuring to get first shot at left field in 2013 and Travis Snider figuring to get first crack at right field. That leaves them with a lineup that likely sets them up to fail again next season, unless the front office can find a corner outfielder who can actally get on base.
The Pirates offense doesn’t need a complete overhaul, and it doesn’t need random additions, but does need a few of the right pieces. They’ll hit home runs again next season, but as we saw this season, it won’t do them any good without the proper hitters at the top.